The Meaning of Life


These days, Michigan in winter seems to be nothing but gloom and gray. As a kid, my memories were decidedly cheerier – I recall more snow and less melancholy. Now the leaden clouds hang overhead for weeks at a time, sapping the barren world beneath of any vibrancy. What I imagine living in a black and white movie would be like.

So maybe it’s appropriate that I have left sunny Colorado to be here in February, in the ‘ancestral’ abode, sitting with my 94-year old mother as her life ever so slowly comes to a close. To make sure she doesn’t fall or otherwise injure herself, to make sure she gets three meals a day, to make sure she doesn’t forget to change her diaper.

Her house is equally gloomy. A tiny, 60s-era ranch, it has been neglected for years. Paint is peeling from the walls, thanks to her attempts to save money by closing off the heat registers in unused rooms. Those rooms are also crowded with the flotsam of her life – though she probably doesn’t qualify as a hoarder, she’s damned close. Stacks of books, old clothes, framed family pictures and accumulated bric-a-brac teeter precariously on dressers and fill every available corner. It feels nothing like the house where I grew up.

Her short-term memory has become just that – a memory. Patches, the dog, is the biggest beneficiary of this development, as mom tosses another scoop of food into the bowl every time she passes it. Of course, Patches can barely get around anymore because of her burgeoning weight. And there’s a cat, practically feral, that won’t come out of the basement if anyone other than my mother is in the house. Both animals shed copiously, and cleaning has never been mom’s strong suit. On a related note, you learn to check expiration dates on everything.

Knee and hip replacements, one each, didn’t provide the desired results and consequently she has been dealing with low-grade pain and decreasing stability for years. She also bristles at using a walker, so we have taken to hiding her canes in the hopes of forcing the issue. But despite our best efforts, she falls. A lot. A face-first tumble in the neighbor’s driveway a few months ago is what started this vigil. Her nose and lip required stitches, and we kids knew the time had come. My step-sister took the first month-long shift, then my brother, and now it’s my turn.

There is this thing she does with the TV remote control where she taps randomly (or at least it seems random) on the number buttons, causing the channels to change erratically every few seconds. She looks up on occasion to see the results of this frenetic activity before returning to her incessant pounding on the remote. When you ask her what in the hell she’s doing, she’ll tell you it’s a ‘game,’ though that is the extent of her explanation. And this goes on for hours. At first I found it maddening, but now I view it as a bit of a blessing, because when she isn’t thusly distracted she spends her days obsessing on a thousand other things – turning off lights, moving the milk from one side of the refrigerator to the other (and, later, back again), rearranging caches of outdated coupons, querying me about the origin of pens that have resided on her kitchen counters for decades.

A few years ago we intercepted a letter she was sending to the “lottery officials” in Jamaica that contained her $3,000 “deposit” required to claim her “prize.” There’s no telling how much went out the door prior to that. Despite having changed her number several times since then, it appears the word is out again. She can be talked into anything, and so the phone rings constantly, and at all hours. Magazine hucksters are the most common, as the piles of unread publications can attest. Better Homes and Gardens, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Sierra, Woman’s Day, Popular Science, Shape, Hola (no, my mother is not bilingual). Do these people not have parents of their own?

Running a close second are the bean-counters at said publishing firms, trying to secure payment on what their sales scumbags have so shamelessly foisted on her. By the look of the statements from the collection agencies, the standard contract comes with a minimum five-year subscription, putting her on the hook for – as near as we can figure – somewhere north of $2,000. Another leech got her to purchase a pair of hearing aids, to the tune of about $1,700. What else may be lurking out there we can only guess at. One morning, the Medical Alert people called six times in the span of 45 minutes. It’s amazing how quickly the conversation ends when I identify myself as mom’s guardian, and then politely ask what the fuck I can do for them.

I know the woman who raised me is in there somewhere. Now and then, amidst the repeated questions about when I arrived or where the chili in the fridge came from (leftovers from the evening before), she will offer some obscure tidbit from the long-distant past, a happy recollection of better times. Or she will have a moment of searing self-awareness, where she’ll curse and bemoan how she wouldn’t wish her predicament on a dog. I can’t argue with her – this is not a life. On more than one occasion she has said that she is ready to go. Sadly, her body simply refuses to cooperate. And for those who tell me every breath is a precious gift from God, I would suggest that a compassionate God would not wish this on a dog either.


14 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life

  1. I am so sorry that you and your family is going through this. My father went into a slow mental decline prior to his death several years ago. Fortunately, we were able to take over his finances (including his access to his checkbook and credit cards) before the scammers took very much. I would think you could get her doctor to declare her mentally incompetent so one of you could get power attorney. Our family was lucky that our parents had a living trust created while they were still doing fine so the transfer of power was pretty easy. There is a special place in hell for the scum who take advantage of the elderly.

  2. Best wishes, Curt. I’ve been through something like you’re describing, and it’s no fun… just part of life for too many. I know It’s not easy. Perhaps you can help yourself during this difficult period through your writings here. For some reason, I’ve missed a few of your recent posts, and it looks like your theme, etc. have changed. I’ll have to go back and review a few recent posts. I’ve missed hearing from you! Good luck!

  3. A brief respite in Michigan today with warm and sunshine. I hear and sympathize. I found the state attorney General consumer affairs division was helpful getting rid of some of the leeches and giving me some tips. I now can write a pretty mean BS letter to Publishers Clearing House, assorted collectors etc. I’m on my third family member as official/unofficial caregiver. It’s baffling, how a person who squeezed every dime now wants to send it to Jamaica or shove it in a slot machine!

  4. This is tough. I’m so sorry. You are a good son. My father in law passed away a couple of years ago leaving behind a house that was in a similar condition to what you are describing (perhaps worse–he really was a hoarder). The experience made me a better housekeeper, a little bit. Get rid of stuff now, with dignity, while I still can. A young family purchased that house and it was kind of wonderful to see how they were fixing it up a year later: bright windows, fresh paint, little kids playing with trucks. The circle of life. Take care of yourself too during this difficult time.

  5. My mom was 93 when she died, and over the last couple of decades of her life, I experienced many of the things you mention. It was especially hard to wean her from the midwestern habit of being polite to whoever calls, and giving them whatever information they ask for. And there was that period of time when everyone on tv got her to call that number. Trinkets? We had trinkets.

    The good news is that she was essentially compos mentis until the end. And, we had set up an enduring power of attorney, which helped considerably. But it was so sad to watch her come to the point where every friend and every relative save one had died. She was ready to go. Sometimes, life just tires a person out to the point where a good night’s sleep isn’t enough.

  6. My wife’s mother went through the same thing. luckily she finally passed ending her suffering.We were lucky in another aspect, we lived too far away to see her daily struggle but my wife’s sister had to deal with it day to day for over three years. When we last visited her, the day we arrived she was having one of those days where she recalled everything and knew my wife. The next morning my wife made her favorite breakfast, that made her happy but later in the day, my wife was visiting with her and she ask what her name was, then she remarked I have a daughter by that name. My wife couldn’t stop crying because her mother never had a normal day from that point on. When we left she wouldn’t even say anything to my wife. Your mother is right, this is a sad time in most people’s life when the person they held dear in their life for all their life could no longer say “I love you” and they look at you like you are a stranger.

  7. Curt,

    Well, I had already deleted that letter. However, in thinking about the situation, I advise talking to an elder abuse advocate or lawyer to get the debts dealt with now. I rather think that otherwise, the debt collectors can file for the money they deem owed to them with the estate. I am thinking that they have taken advantage of your mother, so she should not have to pay the full amount.

    Am okay here. Snowing like the dickens right now. I will see the pulmonologist tomorrow and will keep you advised.



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